Overcoming Toxic Masculinity in the Workplace

By Harvard Business Review
August 20, 2019

Take these two steps to shut down a hypercompetitive organizational culture.

From Uber to Nike to CBS, recent exposés have revealed seemingly dysfunctional workplaces rife with misconduct, bullying and sexual harassment — as well as environments in which managers sought to one-up and sabotage colleagues to get ahead.

We surveyed thousands of workers in the United States and Canada from different companies and identified an underlying cause: a masculinity-contest culture that endorses winner-take-all competition.

Change requires shutting down this hypercompetitive culture. Two specific actions are a good place to start:

  1. Establish a stronger focus on the organization’s mission: One energy company undermined masculinity-contest norms on oil rigs through a safety intervention. The bottom line demanded reform: Oil rig disasters cost lives and money, environmental destruction, legal liability and severe reputational damage. Leaders convinced workers that increased safety was central to the mission, and they monitored and rewarded desired behavior change. Workers were rewarded for voicing doubts or uncertainties about a procedure, for listening to one another, for valuing safety and taking breaks, and for cooperating with and caring for co-workers. Not only were accidents and injuries reduced, but so were bullying, harassment, burnout and stress.
  2. Dispel misconceptions that 'everyone endorses this': People fail to question masculinity-contest norms lest they be tagged as a whiny, soft loser. As a result, everyone goes along to get along, publicly reinforcing norms they privately hate. This breeds pervasive-but-silent dissatisfaction alongside active complicity, as people stay quiet to prove they belong. Leaders can remedy this misperception by publicly rejecting those norms and empowering others to voice their dissent. But they also need to walk the talk by changing reward systems, modeling new behavior and punishing the misconduct. Leaders also need to ensure that people who speak up are no longer punished or retaliated against for doing so.

Copyright 2018 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

Topics: Management

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